Saturday, April 30, 2011

Closing Out April: What Stuck With Me

It is the last day of National Poetry Month, so today is the last day (for awhile at least) I inflict my poetry on my readers. It is only fitting that the last poem of the month ties back to a much earlier work that I ran early in the month.

When I posted Kentucky Funeral and said I wanted to rewrite parts of it, Blogville friendTerri asked what lines I would have rewritten. I replied in part: I'd rework…the description of the pallbearers (both how they were dressed and where they came from - they were people who lived up & down the holler, not exactly a "neighborhood," but clearly a community) …The pallbearers made such an impression on me that...Oh heck, I may just have come up with one of this month's poems!

In responding to a question about what I would change, I realized that what I wanted to do was not rewrite the original poem, but write a different poem about the memory.


What Stuck With Me

Thirty five years later, they stick in my memory,
Those men from the surrounding hills and hollers,
Waiting in groups of five and six
Spaced all up the hillside
To relay the coffin to the mountaintop cemetery
Where no hearse could go.

No one group could begin to haul
A coffin that far -
        200 yards?
        300 yards?
Up an incline where the only path
Had been worn slick from the rain
And the family trips up to dig the grave by hand.

They were dressed for the weather and the task at hand:
        Hunting clothes
        Work boots.
Silently, they unloaded the casket
And carried it up the hill to the top
With a terrible and swift choreography
Before melting away to leave the family to its mourning.

This was paying their respects.
This was seeing that one of their own was laid to rest
         in the good dirt of home.
This was dealing with death head on and straight up.

That's what has stuck with me all these years
     -    More than the view from the mountaintop
     -    More than the family talk that day
     -    More than the terrapin in Atheen's hands.

Just those men, silently carrying out the last rites.

Friday, April 29, 2011

To an Unknown Concertgoer

Today's poem is also based on a true event. At the March 2010 concert, someone in the audience was so struck by the soloist's performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor that he called out the moment she lifted her bow off the strings. Clearly the concertgoer was deeply moved by the performance he had just witnessed. A few weeks later, in rehashing the concert with another attendee, I mentioned that moment in reference to the virtuosity of the performer. The woman with whom I was talking pursed her mouth sharply and made the comment captured in the poem.

Over a year later, I still find myself reliving that moment. The air was still vibrating and someone in the audience could no longer hold in his emotion over what he had just experienced. I'm glad he couldn't.


To the Unknown Concertgoer

There are those who attend to concerts with precision:
Never clapping out of turn or being the first to rise in appreciation.
And, heavens, no shouting "Bravo!"

He was not one of them.

When the last note of the violin concerto was played, he cried out
The moment the soloist lifted her bow in completion
And there was that half beat of silence
Before the conductor lowered his baton.

We could all hear his call, like a mourning dove up in the dome of the hall,
An aching, yearning "ahhh" that he had to release.
It hung in the air just before the wave of applause broke.

A patron pulled her mouth tight recounting the moment.
"Well, clearly that was not someone
Who has been to concerts frequently enough
To know how to behave."

I wish I had been that listener in the audience
    Crying out in appreciation
    Crying out at music so moving that it would break the heart to keep silent.

I wish I had been the one to not behave so beautifully.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wrapping Up Monologues: Mabel's Story

The great English poet Robert Browning wrote many monologues, among them My Last Duchess, the one most likely to be encountered in high school. Browning was a prodigious and exuberant writer and I have often read him just to be uplifted.

He also rhymed his monologues, which even now remains a feat beyond my capability.

This last monologue is actually based on a real person, my paternal grandmother. My grandmother was an unimaginative, hardworking farmwife who came from Kentucky in the depths of the Great Depression with her husband and her little son, my dad. (I do not know whether my aunt Gail had been born yet.)

I know very little about my grandmother's early years, other than she loved school so much that she repeated eighth grade three times just to stay in school. This was back in a time in rural Kentucky when a high school education required having the money to board the student "in town."

Life was not easy for my grandmother after she married. Money was tight. My grandfather, although a strong worker, drank. My grandmother always had many health problems, all of them exacerbated and accelerated by her refusal to take care of her health. I remember her as a no-nonsense, unaffectionate woman who was always working at something: canning, quilting, cooking, gardening, gathering eggs, cleaning the house.

In the photo, my grandmother is the woman smack in the middle of the photo, her arms on the shoulders of her parents in front.


Maggie Mabel

I loved school -
     the chalky smell of it
     the flag hanging in the corner
     the neatness of Teacher's desk.
Loved it all so much I wanted to go on with my learning,
but there wasn't enough money to board me in town
what with all the youngsters still at home and Ma's weak heart.
They let me repeat eighth grade twice more as a kind of teacher's
helper, but then everyone said "That's enough,"
and Pa was doing poorly too.

What do you do when you are 17 and live back up a holler
with younger sisters all prettier than you?
They got the curly hair; they got the smiles that lit up their faces.
Me? I was built square and solid, close to the ground, my hair thin and frizzy.
Even when I was happy, I viewed the world
with a grim look of no expectations.
So when that tall, rangy boy came courting me, I didn't say no,
no matter what I thought.

We started out like so many others with a lick and a promise of
better things to come.
Jim'd drive if there was gas or else ride the mule
to where he was cutting wood for the day.
I stayed home, cooking and cleaning.
I tended the garden,
put up canned goods, quilted every scrap I could find, gathered eggs,
and scratched out our daily bread from that shallow, rocky soil.

When the Depression came, we didn't so much as feel it, times already being
bad in the hills. Then it got worse.
We eked out a life until our boy turned three,
then Jim came home and said we were headed to Ohio,
where the farming was better and
he could surely find work.

And that was that.

While he tuned and patched our old Ford, I sorted
and packed the household goods,
my face already hardened to the future.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


This monologue is based in small part on half-remembered phrases and lines from a poem that was destroyed in the Great Shredding. I had drafted a poem about a family feast in an olive orchard. When Bobby showed up in my head a few weeks ago to tell me his story, that scene slipped itself into this poem.


The Sweet Memory of Olive Oil

We went over there just that one time -
my old man taking Mama
back to the village she'd come from in '45
after the war ended.

I was just a little boy, an Americano
in my striped tee-shirt and
Red Ball Jets.
I was tired from a too long plane flight,
thirsty and fretful from a long hot dusty road. 

Soon, Bobby, soothed my mother.
Presto, Roberto, presto.

Then we were there.
The farmhouse perched
on the edge of the village
and all these people - zias and zios -
all come to see their Maria home.

I remember best the feast -
what else could you call it?
To my five year old eyes, the table went on forever,
famiglia on both sides.
Nonna sat at the head of the table,
her white braids a crown on her head.
The sun, dappled through the grape leaves, the dry baked earth air,
The whole thing set to a hum of bees.

I can still taste the sharp bite of the salt-cured olives,
the sweet sop of olive oil on the pane.
Stories and laughter passing back and forth across the white tablecloths,
platters passing up and down the long stretch of table.
The drone of the bees back and forth in the air,
the pasta surely made in heaven.

The day rolled over to night and I fell asleep,
carried away by the very stars themselves.

We never went back.
Mama lost touch with her sisters after Nonna died
and I don't know the name of the village,
let alone the way to it.

I wake sometimes and
sit up in bed,
the smell of baking earth caking my nostrils,
the hum of bees loud in my ears.
I call out for Mama, call out for mia nonna.
I call for my famiglia gathered again under that grape arbor
before remembering that was 60 years ago
and I'm old enough to be a nonno myself.

Next to me, my wife stirs. 

"Go back to sleep," I tell her, patting her shoulder.
"It was only a dream."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beach Monologue

At many points, most of them low, in my younger life, I fantasized pulling up every stake I had and setting out to somewhere else. Somewhere else was where I didn't know anyone and didn't have any connections. Invariably, my dreams would take me to some nameless small town tacked to the New England seacoast. I would get a job at a local restaurant (never mind that I at that age was an apathetic waitress at best), rent a sparely furnished room in someone's house, and live my life.

In my fantasies, my new life was always idyllic.

This monologue is the flip side: a "what if?" written for that tempestuous young woman of yore.


On the Beach

So it has come to this: a sparse, bare cottage -
Oh, let's be truthful, a shack really -
that rents cheap in this little beach town gritty with sand and hard times.

I piece together a living: 20 hours at the library,
10 hours at the grocery, odd jobs here and there.
It keeps the lights on, but it's
nothing to write home about, if there was anyone left to write home to.

I eat simply and sparingly, out of concern for both my
health and my pocketbook.
In the summer, I grow a few tomatoes
off the back deck and feel rich beyond compare.

Most of my needs can be met at the Salvation Army store next town over.
I don't know about my wants anymore.

I have to think a few minutes to come up with how long I've been here,
almost but not quite having to count on my fingers.
I was young, of course - who isn't, setting off on a quest? -
and I knew - knew deep in my bones - that I was the one with
the golden touch, the quicksilver pen.
Five months, ten months, and I would have a fat manuscript of poems
that would out-Frost Robert Frost.
So I chose this little town, well off the tourist track,
and settled down to write. 

I would write the best stuff of my life up here,
fueled by the eternal promise of the ocean.

Ten months stretched into twenty, and then twenty more. 
After sixty months, I stopped counting.

The little jobs I took for "color," for "authentic voice,"
became the daily routine
until I grew tired of collecting rejection slips and food stamps,
and looked for work that would at least allow me to eat.

It's been almost thirty-five years since I shuffled off the coil of my hometown
told mom I'd make it, she'd see
turned down the hesitant proposal from the old boyfriend
and drove north just like Stuart Little.
A lot of tides have come and gone. I look in the mirror
and see my mother's lined face staring back out at me,
see the silver laced through my hair.

I still walk the beach, picking up driftwood
and other wave-borne oddments for my room,
not even bothering to scan the horizon for my ship that never came in.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Looking Back

Starting today, I will be posting four monologues by characters who have shown up in my head to talk about their lives. These monologues, like most of my other poetry, are triggered by images or phrases that I see or hear.

Today's monologue was triggered by an article about the "new" small farmers and the social, physical, economical, and practical hurdles they face. I'm a huge proponent of supporting and bringing food production back to a local level: this is not a commentary scorning that movement. But the article reminded me of earlier "back to the land" movements and those who eventually gave up on those earnest plans. This is about the small picture of relentless hard work and great sacrifice to follow a dream, and what is left if the dream dissolves. 


Looking Back

Looking back, we were all so earnest,
gathering for our monthly potlucks
of rice and beans and lumpy breads.

Squatting in the cold March mud
to thumb in the broccoli, our breath
small clouds hanging in the damp, chill air.

And the knitting! My god, the knitting!
We did it endlessly, when we weren't
spinning the wool, or the honey. Sweaters
and shawls and gloves and hats: small wonder
we didn't clothe the sheep themselves in wool wraps.

The chickens, the pigs.
The chickweed, the pigweed.
Hauling the slops to the pigs, the pigs
to the butcher, the pork chops to the freezer.
It never stopped.

What was it then, that changed? What was it that made us say
"that's enough," and scrub our hands raw at the sink
until every trace of soil was gone from under our nails?

It wasn't the goodness of the first tomato of summer
or the soft down of the chicks
that did us in. Heaven knows those were gifts,
plain and simple.
It was something more basic.
One mud-tracked rug too many,
one more torn fingernail,
all five grain casseroles and no desserts at the potluck.

Something as little as that.

We sold off
the chickens, the tiller. Gave up the lease and
moved back to the rhythm and hum of the city.
Never looked back, never kept track of the cost,
plus or minus. What good would have come of that?
Nothing but heartache and some tallies on a sheet of paper.

No, better to leave that door closed: the knitting unfinished,
the herbs gone wild,
the heart gone to seed.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Childhood Moments: Easter

When my sons were little, we sometimes went to an upscale Easter brunch. At one such brunch, an adult wearing a large bunny outfit was greeting small children. This was during the years when Sam was terrified of anyone, especially an adult, wearing a costume. The Easter Bunny was over to one side, with a ring of children around him, so Sam was comfortable with proceeding to our table. Midway through the meal, the Easter Bunny started circulating the room. At some point, he came up directly behind Sam, who was intent on eating, and placed a large paw on Sam’s head. Sam froze, the color draining from his face. Ben, in an act of big brother protectiveness, hissed “Sam! Don't. Look. Behind. You.” The adults waved the Bunny off, the moment passed without further incident, and that morning remains a favorite memory of mine.

Other memories are not so pleasant. One such moment occurred with Ben and Easter when he was in first grade. Religion, like so many other topics, was one more landmine in the household. As a result, the boys grew up with no religion or discussions of faith and spirituality. Easter, even in its most commercial and non-religious form, somehow also ended up on the non-observed list.

Just days ago I posted a sonnet about how life is only a one-take proposition. All the same, what parent out there hasn’t replayed events from their children’s childhood and winced? The moment captured below, in contrast to the day of the giant Bunny, is one that eighteen years later I still wish I could take back and make right.  (And for those who wonder when they get to the end, yes, Sam got one too.)



Your 1st grade classmates were talking
About chocolate bunnies
And Peeps
And hunting for colored eggs.

Peter Cottontail was hopping into every one of their homes.

You came home, all of seven, and asked
If we celebrated Easter.

“No,” said your dad, “we don’t believe in Easter.”

You hung your head to hide
The disappointment
But I heard you whisper,
“I believe in Easter.”

You never mentioned Easter again.
You never asked to dye an egg.
You never asked for a chocolate bunny.
When Peeps came home from the grocery,
You ate them without comment.

Easter was never on your calendar.

Over the years, I would hear your small
“I believe in Easter”
And yearn to give it back to you.

This year, I packed a box 
With chocolate eggs and a surprise or two
And shipped them out to you,
A long overdue visit from the Easter Bunny.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Reading Lessons

I'm in the homestretch of my April poetry challenge! The remaining eight poems are all of recent vintage, most of them written this month.

As I wrote recently, the poetry challenge has been hard for me. I've had more than one anxiety attack over the foolhardiness of this venture. Even now, the jury - my own internal handpicked jury - is still out as to whether this was a good thing for me to do.

On the other hand, focusing only on poetry for a month has made me aware of other things. For one, I have missed blogging about life, whether mine or the community's.  So much - the small moments, the small observations - has slipped through my fingers. I am more attentive when I am blogging. Another realization I have had is how little poetry there has been in my life in recent years. I don't mean writing poetry. I knew that was gone. No, I am talking about pulling a book of poems off the shelf and losing (or finding) myself in it for an afternoon. Living with my own poetry this month has made me acutely aware of that gap and I am resolved to slip poetry back into my life.

Something else has occurred to me: I don't write poetry about cancer or about living with cancer. I am hardly silent about cancer - a quick skim of the blog labels to the right tells you I write regularly about the disease that took up permanent residency in my body six and a half years ago. But with the exception of one haiku I dashed off this month in response to the Haiku-ca-choo! challenge to write a riddle, there is nothing in cancer or my life with it that would move me to poetry.

[Oh, I know, you are all wondering about my haiku. Remember, we were supposed to write a riddle.

Little turncoat! What
made you switch your allegiance?
Power? You rogue you.

The first two guesses were Arlen Specter and Joe Liberman, both of which were perfectly appropriate depending on your politics, and both of which just cracked me up. My answer, not nearly as good, was my bone marrow.]

So what am I inspired to write about? Small moments that catch my attention, little happenings that make me take a second or third look, phrases or pictures that make me imagine the life experiences of others. Like my blogging, my poetry also tends towards the little picture and the things I can touch (literally or figuratively).

The poem for today came about during a recent walk when I had to wait at the railroad tracks. It is a good read-aloud poem to catch the rhythm of a freight train clacking by.
Photo from Eddie's Rail Fan Page

Reading Lessons

When I was a little girl, I loved to read off the names
Painted on the boxcars and gondolas and hoppers,
A roll call of America:
B & O, Pennsylvania, New York Central
Wabash, Santa Fe, Burlington
Rock Island, Grand Trunk, L & N
Denver Rio Grande & Western
Cotton Belt, Lehigh Valley, Soo Line
Reading, Frisco, Union Pacific
Erie Lackawanna
Seaboard Coastline.

My brother and I would hang over the front seat of the car,
racing to be the first to call out the line.
Rock Island!

Sometimes I would just chant them under my breath
To the rhythm of the train:
Er-ie Lack-a-wan-na
Er-ie Lack-a-wan-na
Cotton Belt, Cotton Belt
Er-ie Lack-a-wan-na.
Er-ie Lack-a-wan-na
Cotton Belt, Cotton Belt

Today while I was walking, the crossing guard blinked and
Clanged down.
I heard the locomotive's sharp call
And saw it coming down the tracks.

I stood back and watched the freight train roll through,
Car after car:
New cars, sleek cars,
Glossy black coal cars
Filled and heading north,
Rumbling through and then gone.
CSX every last one.

All work, no play.
(Rock Island, Burlington)
All business, no romance.
(New York Central, Soo Line)
No America to roll off your tongue.
(Denver Rio Grande & Western, Seaboard Coastline)

Nothing to read there.

Cotton Belt, Cotton Belt
Erie Lackawanna
Erie Lackawanna
Cotton Belt, Cotton Belt


Friday, April 22, 2011

Villanelles, Part Two

Right on the heels of my first villanelle, I followed with this one. Read with the other, it makes for a nice set of bookends in a greeting card kind of way. I blame it on the rhymes.

I do love the word "villanelle" though. It is a beautiful word to roll off the tongue, and I regret I cannot bring the beauty to the form that the name implies.



Sun is rising strong and bright.
Shadows all are set to flee.
Extinguish candles at the light.

Birds raise their voices in delight,
Calling out in vocal spree,
"Sun is rising strong and bright!"

Scour away the tips of night,
Set the sleeping hours free!
Extinguish candles at the light.

Day grows stronger, dark's in flight,
Paths are lit for all to see.
Sun is rising strong and bright.

Gray haze fades without a fight,
Nowhere left for it to be.
Extinguish candles at the light.

Morning breaks, sun gains height,
Golden rays wash over me.
Sun is rising strong and bright.
Extinguish candles at the light.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Villanelles are an odd, tight, technical form that originated during the Renaissance as freeform drinking songs. Somewhere along the line, supposedly in nineteenth century France, villanelles became highly structured and assumed the form they retain today: five tercets (stanzas of three lines) followed by a quatrain (stanza with four lines), with two repeating lines (refrains) and two repeating rhymes (a or b). The repeating lines are the first and third line of the first tercet. The ending quatrain also picks up those repetitious (and rhyming) lines. (Confused yet? So am I. I only write these with a penciled schematic in the margin.)

For someone like me who struggles with rhymed verse, villanelles are hell. Some poets - Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath - handled this form brilliantly. Me? I feel like I am writing script for greeting cards when I work on one.

Below is my first attempt (ever) at a villanelle, written in March of this year.


End of Day

Daylight fades across the way.
Shadows grow, colors end.
Candles lit at end of day.

Children coming in from play,
Parting from the many friends,
Daylight fades across the way.

Supper: hunger's now at bay.
Mother with the socks to mend,
Candles lit at end of day.

Bath time now, boat display!
Homework done with, time to spend.
Daylight fades across the way.

Day is over, time to pray,
Cares and worries now to tend.
Candles lit at end of day.

Sleeping household, let it stay
Quiet while the nighttime wends.
Daylight fades across the way.
Candles lit at end of day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sending Out the Sonnets: Sonnet #3

Of all my lumpy little sonnets, this one is my favorite. I like the images, I like the theme. I wrote this one evening when I was replaying moments from my children's childhoods, and wishing either I could take some of them back or else revisit and savor them all over again. (On Easter, I will be posting a poem on the very theme of wanting to redo a moment from the past.)



You don't get a do-over. No god runs
the film backwards, letting you say "Stop it
there." No replays allowed, no edits done,
no rewriting the lines to better fit.
The film only rolls forward, one large reel
spooling endlessly until it runs out.
Only one take in which to catch the feel
of baby's cheek, the sound of children's shouts.
One shot only per scene! Small wonder you
walk around the remainder of your days
wondering, hoping for a sign or two
that you get one more role in which to play.

The true treasures of each minute hold tight
to give comfort against the coming night.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sending Out the Sonnets: Sonnet #2

When I posted this sonnet with my Facebook poetry group, one friend commented Possible alternate title: "Starting a business." I reread it with that title in mind and realized he was right.

This is probably the most lighthearted sonnet of the few I have written. That's not saying much.


Consider this: that for every step
You do not take, having looked way too long
At chasms you otherwise would have leapt,
There may yet be time to undo the wrong
Of too much carefulness, too little glee -
To take the chances held out before you
And leap, shouting your fears, your joys! To be
Soaring, tumbling, flailing away as new
Landscapes hurtle past. The joy of being
Mid-air, mid-jump as it were. The old cares
Cast aside to take on this quest, freeing
Your heart from the box before it grows spare.

And when you land, breathe deep before you rise
To view strange vistas with unsullied eyes.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sending Out the Sonnets: Sonnet #1

I was fortunate in high school to have had some excellent, rigorous literature teachers. (I am also old enough by many decades that literature curricula were still thick, meaty entrees rather than the flighty appetizers that they are all too often now.)

We read a lot of poetry back in those days. If you were in an overview course, you would read English poetry from Chaucer to Eliot and beyond. Sonnets, whether by Shakespeare or Browning (Elizabeth, not Robert) made up a large part of the sampler. If you had Mrs. Hearn, as I did for several classes, both reading and writing sonnets were part of the coursework. So despite the rhyme requirements, I have always had a high comfort level with sonnets. Earlier this year, as I took the training wheels off in my Facebook poetry group, I tried my hand at sonnets. I will be posting the results over the next three days.

Sonnets tend to bring out the somber side of me and this one and the third of the three are no exceptions. I haven't figured out why. Perhaps I am so intent on the rhyme and meter that I can't lighten up the topic.

For those of you who were not fortunate enough to have Kay Hearn, Arlene Gregory, Steve Tobias, or Roberta Rollins for literature, the opening line is from the sonnet by the same name by John Keats. Keats was not being prophetic; he probably already knew he had contracted tuberculosis and that early death was the only outcome.


John Keats by William Hilton, National Portrait Gallery, London

Sonnet One

"When I have fears that I may cease to be…"
Who knows, when they are young, reading those lines
What awaits? Time is endless, a great, free
Banquet spread out at which one is to dine,
Never dreaming in savoring the feast
That the wine may grow flat, the bread turn sour,
That there may not be enough for the least
Hunger to be filled for a day, an hour.
Who knows, sitting there, the bill will come due
And one's pockets may be empty as air?
No, best to eat happily, without clues,
Enjoy the meal, savor all that is fair.

Life will intrude soon enough: sorrow, grief,
Hardship, reminding us our time is brief.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I have always enjoyed parodies of poems, especially when the parody is not aimed directly at the poet being aped but instead makes use of a well-known poem to poke fun at someone or something else, including the author of the parody. One of my all-time favorites is "Ancient Music," by Ezra Pound, in which he comments scathingly on winter by turning inside out the Middle English round "Sumer is icumen in."

Two years ago, I posted a parody of one of my favorite poems, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," by Wallace Stevens. My work was the result of a frustrating battle with an overstuffed closet in our garage. Two years later, it still makes me laugh.

This year's piece came about as a result of realizing one day this winter just how disheveled our home was. I had come from a car that was muddy and dirty from too slushy, wet days. The front hallway was dirty with melting puddles and the tracks leading from them. Neither of us had swept the kitchen floor or even wiped off the table that day. As for vacuuming the carpet or clearing the coffee tables, that thought was beyond our scope. For a brief moment I was overwhelmed, and then I remembered Carl Sandburg's poem, "The Grass." 



Rugs, floors, towels, windshields.
Leave them alone and let me work.
    I am the dirt; I cover all.

The windowsills, curtains, baseboards,
The mat at the front door;
Don't do anything and let me work.
    That Sandburg guy aiming for immortality?
I covered him too.

I am the dirt.
Let me work.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Plethora of Pantoums: French Lullabies

The pantoum below was written based upon hearing my sister-in-law singing French lullabies in the early morning as she went about some kitchen tasks.  For the record, she was not weeping, but having just said goodbye to both of my sons, I easily imagined a scene where a mother would combine gentle weeping and soft singing as she thought back over the early years of childhood.


French Lullabies

The French lullabies that now are not needed?
They hang in the air yet.
She gently weeps as she puts things to right
in the kitchen.

They hang in the air yet,
Clinging to the curtains.
In the kitchen,
Little tears

Clinging to the curtains.
The French lullabies,
Little tears,
You could brush away unnoticed if anyone came in.

The French lullabies
She used to sing to him,
You could brush away unnoticed if anyone came in.
In the quiet morning, her clear notes rise up the stairs.

She used to sing to him.
The baby is gone.
In the quiet morning, her clear notes rise up the stairs.
The little boy is gone.

The baby is gone.
He does not need crooned to now.
The little boy is gone.
She croons the French lullabies.

He does not need crooned to now.
As she wipes the kitchen counter,
She croons the French lullabies
Gently weeping.

As she wipes the kitchen counter
She gently weeps as she puts things to rights,
Gently weeping
The French lullabies that now are not needed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Plethora of Pantoums: Midway Mark

As of today, I am halfway through posting a poem of my own each day in honor of National Poetry Month. And I have to confess: it is hard. Harder than I anticipated when I took on this challenge.

It is hard putting poetry - my poetry, for God's sake! - out in the public sphere. I have had more than one bout with anxiety since starting this month. The Internal Critic has been a daily companion, particularly loud when the anxiety hits, but certainly audible most other times as well. The comments range from a snippy "this isn't real haiku, you know" to a hissed "what do you think you are doing?"

We all carry around Internal Critics. They are the ones who nibble away at our self esteem, take bites out of our confidence. Sometimes they are guests artists making a cameo appearance: the Hard-To-Please Parent, the Undermining Best Friend, the Callous Commentator. Sometimes we know the voice and the face because it is our own.

As I continue to post pantoums, one in particular seems appropriate at this halfway point given my anxiety. This was written in response to a writing prompt on Quote Snack. For those of you who are not familiar with writing prompts, they are simple to do. The writer is given a phrase or a line and a set period of time in which to write, without stopping, anything that comes to mind in response. E.A., the blogger at Quote Snack, sets her writing prompts up to last five minutes, reminding you at the end to "Get up and wiggle. Move. Laugh. Growl. Pat self on back."

The phrase in a recent Quote Snack prompt was "with the Past's blood-rusted key." After writing my response, I thought it had the bones for a pantoum, so I pretty much just cut and tweaked my response to fit the pantoum framework. The original pantoum was considerably longer; the one below is the revised version.

As much fun as I have with them, pantoums are a little freaky, especially if you are struggling with an anxiety attack. At those times, they remind me of the chain emails you used to see directing you to pick numbers, think of colors, write down three names, and then learn what your answers revealed. Those emails usually had the warning "DON'T SCROLL DOWN! YOU WILL BE AMAZED!" Because pantoums turn back in upon themselves - completing the circle, as it were - it sometimes throws me how neatly the first and fourth lines fit into and lock up the ending, even though I know they are supposed to do exactly that. This is one of those times.

This pantoum speaks to the anxiety this month's poetry challenge poses for me. As my brilliant therapist of years past would remind me, I don't have to unlock the door and let those anxieties enter. As the poem reveals and as even he would have acknowledged, it is not easy to discard the key. The trick is learning to carry it, but not use it.


with the Past's blood-rusted key

The key is rusty.
The key is rusted red, ferrous red, iron red.
It is the key to my past.
I hold it in my hand.

The key is rusted red, ferrous red, iron red.
I study the key carefully.
I hold it in my hand.
I cannot clench my fist around it.

I study the key carefully,
I lay the key down on the counter.
I cannot clench my fist around it.
I try to remember where the key fits.

I lay the key down on the counter. 
What memory does it unlock?
I try to remember where the key fits.
My god, my head throbs, trying to remember.

What memory does it unlock?
Is it from years and years past?
My god, my head throbs, trying to remember.
Are we talking one decade or five?

Is it from years and years past?
What if I just walked away?
Are we talking one decade or five?
What if I just left the key and never came back for it?

What if I just walked away?
No one else can use it.
What if I just left the key and never came back for it?
They would just toss it.

No one else can use it.
It would follow me noiselessly through the air if I left without it.
They would just toss it.
I hesitate, my hand on the door knob.

It would follow me noiselessly through the air if I left without it.
The key is now curiously warm.
I hesitate, my hand on the door knob.
I sigh. I walk back.

The key is now curiously warm.
I pick up the key and pocket it. 
I sigh. I walk back.  
I walk out the door, locking it with a fresh key.

I pick up the key and pocket it.
It is the key to my past.
I walk out the door, locking it with a fresh key.
The key is rusty.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Plethora of Pantoums: Reverie

The cold rehearsal mentioned yesterday lead to a cold dress rehearsal and a brown bag supper in a cold upper hallway two nights later. After we ate, Warren prepared for concert by reviewing his music, while I shivered, watched the snow fall, and thought of summer.



There shall come again bright sun,
The heat of the day rising up.
But tonight it is cold.
We have weathered so much already.

The heat of the day rising up
From the garden hazy with promise.
We have weathered so much already.
The sharp tang of summer is far away.

From the garden hazy with promise
The mysterious smell of growing rises up.
The sharp taste of summer is far away.
My tongue has forgotten its flavor.

The mysterious smell of growing rises up.
My hands search the vines.
My tongue has forgotten its flavor.
Where is that season in this long cold?

My hands search the vines.
(But tonight it is cold.)
Where is that season in this long cold?
There shall come again bright sun.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Plethora of Pantoums

Several weeks into Haiku-ca-choo!, our intrepid leader Kate formed a second Facebook group, Poetry Prom. The thought behind this group was to stretch our poetic wings and experiment with various formal poetic structures.

Initially, much like with the Haiku-ca-choo! group, Kate would set out an assignment, albeit by poetic form rather than by theme. Those of us who were game would then work with the assigned form and post our results on the group page.

The very first assignment was pantoums, a form I was unfamiliar with then. Pantoums are a Malay form of poetry and historically have been rhymed. As I noted just two days ago, I don't work well with rhymes. Luckily, a pantoum may also be unrhymed and, as you will see, all of mine are.

A pantoum is a highly structured poem. It is always written in quatrains (stanzas of four lines each). The second and fourth lines of each quatrain become the first and third line of the next quatrain until the final quatrain, which is so neatly tied back to the first and third lines of the first quatrain that you feel as if you are darning a sock.

I wrote a whole rash of pantoums and am planning on posting five of them this month. For me, they are little puzzles of words and pictures that, as the poet, I have to interlock in the course of the poem.

More than the other poetic forms, my pantoums often start with a distinct image that I have seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted. My first pantoum, set out below, was roughed out during a rehearsal I attended with Warren. The concert focused on Russian composers, and the exotic melodic lines worked their way into the poem, contrasting sharply with the cold theatre hall in which I sat.


 Notes on a Rehearsal

There should be half-shuttered rooms,
Dust motes in strong sunlight,
Scents of cinnamon, almond,
The faint ting of finger cymbals.

Dust motes in strong sunlight?
It is still winter here, with raggedy sunshine.
The faint ting of finger cymbals
Lost in the rush of wind.

It is still winter here, with raggedy sunshine,
No place for oriental fantasias.
Lost in the rush of wind,
The Old Quarter fades away.

No place for oriental fantasias,
Scents of cinnamon, almond;
The Old Quarter fades away.
There should be half-shuttered rooms.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

Childhood Memory #7: The Library

Walking to the books -
How many miles did I log
going back and forth?


One of Louis Darling's wonderful drawings; this one from Beezus and Ramona

I thought I was done posting haiku during this poetry challenge, but then I discovered that author Beverly Cleary is 95 today!

As a child, I lived a little less than half a mile from the library, which was then at the north edge of downtown, right next to the courthouse. The library loomed large in my childhood: it was my safe haven, it was my gateway to the world, it was one of a very few places where I felt cherished, safe, and totally free to be myself. I was a weekly visitor at any time of the year. During the summer, it was not unusual for me to make three or four trips a week to the library, sometimes two in the same day, usually on foot.

I may have been nine when I first discovered Beverly Cleary. Whether I found her on my own or whether Mrs. Judd, the archetypal librarian of my childhood, steered me Cleary's way, I cannot recall, but I do remember the first Cleary book I ever read. It was Ellen Tebbits, the story of a third grader who found her best friend in a janitorial closet where they were both hiding while they changed in and out of their dance clothes. (Read the book if you want to know why Ellen and Austine, her friend, were hiding.)

One book by Cleary and I was hooked. Otis Spofford (the wonderful bullfight chapter!), Beezus and Ramona (the applesauce!), and all the rest then available soon followed. Cleary's early works were illustrated by Louis Darling, whose detailed pen and ink drawings fascinated me almost as much as Cleary's words did. 

I missed out (the first time) on the rash of Ramona books Cleary wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. As luck would have it, after we moved back to Delaware, the girl next door one day brought over a sack of books she had "outgrown" and thought my boys might like to read. I was thrilled beyond words to find the bag was full of Beverly Cleary novels (including my beloved Ellen Tebbits), and thus I had the glorious opportunity to catch up on many of Cleary's later works that I had missed the first time around. I still have the twelve volumes we got that day and still dip into them frequently. I can never thank Bethany, then the girl next door and now a cherished friend, enough for that grocery sack of wonder.

In the 1990s, Cleary wrote two autobiographies, A Girl From Yamhill and On My Own Two Feet. These portray her childhood and adulthood up through the publication of Henry Huggins, her first book. Cleary wrote with clarity and honesty about her struggles to get an education and lead her own life despite constrained finances and the constant disapproval and opposition of her mother, themes which resonated deeply with me. They are as easy to read as her novels and I have returned to them more than once as well.

There is a wonderful line in the movie Hook (a favorite of mine), in which Captain Hook (the Captain Hook of Peter Pan fame) proclaims "What would the world be without Captain Hook?"

What would be it be indeed? That line rings true for all of the great characters of children's literature. What would the world be without Jo, Stuart, Charlotte, Laura, Harry, Dorothy, Jane, Pauline, Petrova, and Posie, Alice, Meg and Charles Wallace, Sara, Sam, Milo and Tock, Stanley, and Caddie? (Can you name the characters and the books?)

What would the world be without Beezus and Ramona?

Happy birthday, Beverly Cleary!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Another Sonnet? So Soon?

Sonnets are not an easy poetry form for me to work with, because they require both rhyme and meter (rhythm). Rhyming is hard work for me. I was raised on heavily rhymed poetry, starting with nursery rhymes and proceeding to Eugene Fields and Robert Louis Stevenson. I was in junior high before I discovered that not all poetry had to rhyme. I was further stunned to learn, contrary to what I had been taught, that free verse (which is what teachers used to call all unrhymed poetry) was not an elaborate ruse visited upon us by  "modern" (i.e., early 20th century) poets but had a proud heritage in this country courtesy of Walt Whitman.

As a result of these discoveries, I stopped writing rhymed poetry for a long time, freeing my pen from the tyranny of a rhyme scheme. After I stopped writing any poetry except the very occasional extremely light verse, I wrote only rhymed poetry. Go figure.

I am still uneasy with rhymed poetry (as you will see later this month) and often feel like a second-rate greeting card writer when I tackle it. Of all the rhymed forms, I struggle the least with sonnets. Sonnets are limited in length (only fourteen lines) and depend as heavily on the meter as they do the rhyme scheme. There are many classic sonnet forms, each with its own rhyme patterns. For the record, the sonnet below (as well as the one a few days ago and the ones to come) is written in the Shakespearian or English style. (As longtime readers know, I love Shakespeare. Besides being a whale of a playwright, Shakespeare was also no slouch as a poet, leaving us over 150 sonnets alone.) In a Shakespearian sonnet, the rhyme scheme is ababcdcdefefgg. When it comes to sonnets, I am still working on what is known as the volta (or "turn"), which marks a change in subject matter mid-sonnet (from small picture to large picture, for example). 

Today's sonnet is a taste of what is to come not this week but the one after this one. After today, I am heading to the land of pantoums, a curious structure that Kate of Haiku-ca-choo! introduced me to some weeks ago.

So why a sonnet today? Because today is Warren's 57th birthday and this piece, which I penned a few weeks back, was written very much with us in mind.

Happy Birthday, my dear Warren!


Sonnet for Warren

Who knows what might have come of this had we
but set aside all caution, prudence - thrown
our fates to the wind, and let fortune be
our guide in years to come.  Later, windblown,
we might then assess the damage done, or,
instead, count the stored memories we'd set
aside to stoke our hearts at cold times. For
lack of something - courage, perhaps - we bet
instead on other paths, other routes to
what we thought the future should have held, not
realizing what it would take to true
up the lines Fate had drawn but we'd not sought.
These later years seem doubly sweet to taste
for rescuing hearts, souls, and lives from waste.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Four Days of Haiku: Tandem Poems

Writing in two Facebook poetry groups has been a heartening experience for me. It helps me to have feedback and commentary as I write. "Putting it out there" in a supportive group was a huge part of my making the decision to challenge myself to post a poem a day for National Poetry month.

Besides, it is fun. A lot of what goes on, especially in the Haiku-ca-choo! group, is silliness. Silliness spawns more silliness, and before long the haiku go spinning out of control. Sometimes one of us posts a piece that sets off a whole series of comments or responsive poems.

Recently, a chance meeting with a classmate (and fellow Haiku-ca-choo!-er) led to the following poems, a variation on tandem poems. The haiku are by me, the limerick is by Paul Monks, who I had earlier seen racing down the street on a bicycle. After our brief meeting, I called back, walking away, "I better see something in Haiku-ca-choo! about this!"

My haiku went up first.


Street Scenes: Two Views

First warm day: Paul on
his bike, whizzing down the street,
grinning like a kid.

Monks barreling down
the street, scattering those in
his path. "Hey, April!"

Same Street Scene
                   By Paul Monks

There is a lady we all like,
who takes what to me is a hike.
From work she does walk
and will stop to talk.
April could go faster by bike.
(warm weather haiku, non-fiction)

Reply to Monks

If I biked, so much
would be lost: snowdrops, bird songs,
chatting with old friends.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Four Days of Haiku: Childhood Memories

One of the most popular assignments for our Haiku-ca-choo! group was "favorite childhood memories." It was this assignment that caused me to toss off piece after piece without pausing.

When I realized what I had just done, I had the same shaky exhilaration that any kid who has ever mastered riding a bike feels that first successful solo trip. There I was, halfway down the alley thinking someone was still running alongside me keeping me upright, before I realized I was doing it all by myself. I was so pleased that over the next few days I went on writing ("Look, Ma, no hands!") and ended up with 28 childhood notes.

Below are eight haiku from that fateful assignment.


The blue print dress

Childhood Memory #1: School Days
Warm spring sunshine day-
Teaching how to be a horse
to Jill. "Neigh like this."

Childhood Memory #2: Street Play
Throw the rock like that,
flicking it to 5 and then
hopscotching past it.

Childhood Memory #5: Barbie 
(or "Thanks a lot, Tonya, for Reminding Me!")
Days playing Barbie
with Kim. Just what was Barbie
up to exactly?

Childhood Memory #9: Perspective
The Flax Street hill was
huge, gigantic-too much to
climb. When did it shrink?

Childhood Memory #14: Play
The Alamo set
in the sandbox. We had the
Americans win.

Childhood Memory #16: Summertime Two
Hide-and-seek in the
dark, fireflies showing us the
way to a good spot.

Childhood Memory #20: Car Trips
Riding backwards in
the Plymouth wagon, one of
us always threw up.

Childhood Memory #23: School Clothes
Mom made my dresses
first, second grade. What became
of the blue print one?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Four Days of Haiku: Assignments

In our Haiku-ca-choo! group, someone, often Kate, suggests a theme for the week. In early February, the theme was "favorite foods." I was in the early stages of a spiritual journey and deeply interested in the connection between food, belief, and community. While everyone else answered the assignment in the spirit it was meant ("chocolate!"), I penned the haiku below with a small comment appended.


Breaking bread with friends.
Communion, community
at the table now.

Haiku comment: it's not about the food.

With Katrina this past February before breaking bread together.
With Katrina, it is never just about the food. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Four Days of Haiku: Learning to Speak

As I wrote yesterday, my road back to poetry was broken and crooked beyond crooked. So what changed? What got me not only writing poetry again but even willing to post it?

It was my long ago high school classmates, now good friends thanks to Facebook, that provided the final nudge. One of our number, Kate, starting posting a daily haiku about her Bay Area commute. Others of us starting chiming in with little pieces of our own, and soon we had spun off a separate Facebook group, Haiku-ca-choo!, launched in January of this year.

Haiku was an easy way to ease back into poetry. Haiku is often described as a seventeen syllable Japanese poetry form, often written in three lines with a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern. In reality, haiku has far more complexity and variation to it in its traditional Japanese form. But for someone coming back to poetry after a long layoff, Americanized haiku was perfect. It was short, it was simple, and all I had to do to write it was count syllables on my fingers.

Below in one of the earliest works I posted in Haiku-ca-choo!


Red cherries, white snow.
Ornamentals, yes, but birds
don't turn up their beaks.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hidden Sonnet

As I have recounted elsewhere, I stopped writing poetry for over a decade because of a traumatic event during a deeply troubled prior marriage. For the longest time, I didn't even try to write poetry, other than occasional light verse (doggerel, really), because it was simply too overwhelming emotionally.

Truth be known, for the longest time, I did no writing other than personal letters and those documents necessary in my law practice. For someone who had once written "take away my pen and you render me mute," this was a very bleak time in my life. It was not until I left the marriage and had a long course of therapy that I started to feel I could again take pleasure in writing.

My confidence in my prose writing came back first. In 2002, I began writing a monthly newspaper article about downtown commercial architecture. To my surprise, the articles gained a following and eventually netted me and my editor two state awards.

As much as I loved writing about architecture, it wasn't poetry. I steadfastly avoided poetry. Poetry still hurt too much. Poetry was still way too scary. Over the next several years, I would only attempt two poems, making sure to bury them deep in a computer file so no one would ever know they existed.

Starting this blog in March, 2009, brought me a long way down the path towards poetry. Writing publicly, receiving feedback, making new friends in Blogville who responded positively to my writing - all of these things reassured me that maybe, just maybe, I did have something to say.  And if I did have something to say, then maybe I could write poetry again.

I tested the poetic waters a few times in my blog, quietly and without much ado. It didn't hurt, but it didn't yet feel comfortable. To borrow a line from my friend EA, "that stubbornly insecure heart of mine" wasn't ready to acknowledge that I was allowed to write poetry again.

But even if my heart wasn't ready to acknowledge that poetry was permissible, my pen was. Last Saturday night, looking through my writing notebook, I came across what clearly was a roughed out sonnet. By its location in the book as well as its topic, I knew it dated back to this past August. I had forgotten all about it. Sunday morning, I copied it out and cleaned it up, correcting the meter and the rhyme scheme.

I'll discuss sonnet structure later this month. Enjoy this one today.  


It Would Have Been Enough

It would have been enough to see your smile
If you had come upon me suddenly
And watched me cut the peppers for awhile,
Bagging them for later suppers to be.
Standing in the doorway, you with ease could
Have viewed the sorting through the greens and reds,
Seen the line of concentration that would
Weave its way from my hands to my forehead.
I would have gone on chopping, unaware
Of your gaze until you moved in the door
And caught my attention away to stare
Briefly at you until I turned once more
To peppers. But no, there you were outside,
Tending other tasks, love's look set aside.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Juvenilia IV: Let Her Speak

In Bring Me A Unicorn, the first of five volumes of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's letters and diaries, the author spoke about the embarrassment of rereading, let alone publishing, writings from her teen and college years. In explaining why she chose to do so, Anna noted that she "had a certain respect for the early efforts of this struggling adolescent, who now seems so many lives removed from the self of today. I can laugh at her and am often embarrassed by her, but I do not want to betray her. Let her speak for herself."

I feel the same way about this last poem from my early years. As I typed it out for this post, I saw lines and phrases I wanted so much to rewrite. I corrected a few spelling errors, but otherwise chose to let the poem stand on its own awkward legs.

This was written after going with my parents to a family funeral down in the Kentucky hills. Over 35 years later, my cousin Atheen still mentions this piece and how he "never was in a poem in [his] life except for that one." Atheen wasn't much for poetry by his own admission, but he reckoned he liked this one.


Kentucky Funeral

Atheen, my cousin,
    his face unlined yet worn for all his thirty-five years in the hills,
stood in the door of his cabin - shack - home
and waved us goodbye
    before returning to the mourners inside.

These past two days he had made
    twenty or more trips up the side of the Nelson hill,
digging the grave out for great Uncle Bill in the cold March air,
    using blasting caps when the thin soil gave out
    and only bedrock was left.
As family trickled in from all parts of the country,
    the men folk all made the trek up
    and pitched in to help bury their dead.

After the funeral, sparse and commercial,
    and the twisted drive from Greenup to our land,
contingents of neighborhood men waited upside the hill -
spaced at neat intervals to relay the coffin up the slick mud path.
    Me and Burl raced up after
    being two of the first people to the top
following the valley pallbearers, coveralled and hunting clothed.
Waiting for the rest to join us
(the minister and fat little funeral director
puffing and picking their ways up more slowly),
I examined my ancestors' final plots, Iven and Minnie,
    my Nelson great grandparents.
They say this little hilltop graveyard was one of two,
    my more ancient forbearers being one hill over.
    Burl pointed out towards another rise
where we'd someday make a similar climb to lower my
other clan great grandmother, wrinkled and bent,
into the selfsame wooden vault and hear,
    as they were now doing with Bill,
the mud and rocks thud back down upon her.

Atheen joined us briefly,
    grinning like a small boy,
and held up some old terrapin that had braved the cold and rush of humans,
only to be captured by this Kentucky hills man.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Juvenilia III: College Poems

More of my early poetry that escaped the Great Shredding is contained in a small notebook of poems I gave my mother for Christmas, 1975. Both my mother and her mother, my beloved Grandma Skatzes, wrote poetry, so I put together a small selection of poems by each of us for my mom's present that year.

I wrote in the introduction: Three generations of women and all of them found it necessary at some time to pick up a pen and make sense of their world through the written word. No one of them writes with the same style as the other two, but the similarities, the same blood in each of them, are evident. For this reason, the authors are listed as Skatzes, Skatzes Nelson, and finally Nelson, to show the progression through the decades. Maybe someday it will be extended to a fourth generation.

I am including two poems, one today and one tomorrow, from Three Generations: An Anthology.


Wonder Bread

During the season, they were pushing football,   
    Each loaf of bread concealing a cardboard faced player:
    Cockcroft and Gries.
Smiling patiently, we extracted them and set them aside for youngest sibling.

But now, Christmas and all its tinsel brings a change.
No more hulking heroes these
But instead a game,
    Wondrous and childish:
    Mazes and secret circles to erase for answers.

Michel sees this newest toy and,
    Forgetful of his sixteen years,
Picks it up in eagerness. Catching my eye,
He lays it down with a self-conscious shrug.
"Hunh" says he.

Each of us, from our lordly adult heights,
Keeps a watch over the cards,
Waiting for the other to turn so we can race ourselves
    To the magic and secret circles of childhood.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Juvenilia II: Tandem Poems

Writing of any sort is almost always a solitary activity. You think alone, you write alone, you often read your works out loud in an empty room. Only the act of publishing is public.

As a teenager, I was acutely shy and self-conscious. Publicly sharing any of my private work, especially my poetry, was an ordeal.

I was very fortunate in that I had someone with whom I could share my writing. My older brother had a classmate, Kam, who also loved to write. I never knew much about Kam as he was a senior year transfer to our school and then went into the Air Force right out of high school. His first year in the military, he would come back to Delaware on leave and sometimes come over to our house to shoot a game of pool (we had a full sized, regulation pool table right inside the back door), eat a home cooked meal, and tell jokes.

Kam and I corresponded for some three years, frequently exchanging poetry. For many years, I kept a sheaf of his work in with my own poetry. I assumed they disappeared when I shredded my work. Recently, while going through old high school literary magazines looking for my early poems, I was stunned to discover I had tucked his poems carefully away in one of them.

The following poems are our responses to a self-directed assignment: write a rhyming poem about a man named Thomas who runs a merry-go-round. When we mailed one another our poems, we were amazed and amused to see we had done very similar treatments of the topic. We had even each shortened Thomas to Thom.


T. H. Gurdy 
               By Kameron A. Mitchell

Wipe the smile from your face, Thom
     Can't stand to see you strain
     After all - it's only life
     And life is everything that rhymes
     And life is everything that loses
What it hasn't left behind.
Now you've given up your mind
     For an organ and a monkey
     Who is just a bit unkind
     Oh - I don't see how you tolerate
     Mischievous ways and how he ate
     The last banana from your bunch
         In my opinion - he's too much.
At this you're better off alone
     But you won't make it on your own.
     You're not the man who cried aloud
        And not the man who thinks he's proud.
Just T. H. Gurdy - man of pleasure
Who'd hurt no one at any measure.
     And if bringing joy to others
    Will bring happiness to you,
Then make your dangling monkey dance
With music rolled out to entrance
     The children with a happy sound
    As people gather all around.
The monkey brings to each a laugh
     And in return a dime or half
A hard earned dollar's tossed
     So great a joy and small the cost
     For heavy hearts to be brought up
     By grateful coins within a cup.
And no one sees your tattered coat
    Or soiled bandana 'round your throat
     They never notice worn through shoes
    And strands of thread in faded hues.
Your music's now your life and love
Your life is what they know and love
Your love is what they understand
'Cause you're their hurdy-gurdy man.

Thom, they always said  
                By April Nelson
Thom, they always said the man
    who ran the merry-go-round
had dreams of being grand
    in this promised land…
        yet he wanted real horses to tend
              instead of wooden ones to mend;
        full blooded racers
            instead of gay painted pacers.
        no maypole spacings.
        no calliope pacings.
        no "ten cents a ride" -
            silver dime pride is all you earn
        when the brass ring gives another turn.

Thom, they always said the man
    who flew the flying jenny
had a warm, kind face
    when he set the flyer's pace…
        yet he dreamed of thundering feet
            instead of tin music bleat;
        measuring out feed
            instead of guarding poled steeds.
        no round ring stumpings.
        no wooden flank bumpings.
        no continual flyings -
            you know you're lying when you sing
        to the tune of the old brass ring.

Thom, they always said the man
    who guided the carousel
wrought a magic spell
    when he rang its bell…
        yet he longed for winning streaks
            instead of wood hooves meek;
        race winning pay
            instead of spun sugar days.
        no merry-go-rounds.
        no ups-and-downs.
        no splintery fears -
            he wanted the cheers of racing form fame
        so much more than the brass ring game.

Thom, they always said…
    Damn, Thom, can't you see?
        that kind-faced man,
        that magic man -
    that merry-go-round man is me.    

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Juvenilia I

April is National Poetry Month. At the end of last April, I wrote about how much I love poetry and why I no longer wrote it. In recent months, with the strong support of friends, I have started writing poetry again. About two weeks ago, after throwing the challenge out to myself in February, I decided I would celebrate National Poetry Month by posting daily a poem of my own on my blog.

I should point out that I am not writing a new poem each day. I am posting poems I have written primarily in the last three months, sometimes in the last three weeks.

However, I felt strongly that, to the extent it still existed, my juvenilia should also make a brief appearance to show where I started from many years ago. Juvenilia is defined as "works of art, literature, or music produced in youth or adolescence, before the artist, author, or composer has formed a mature style."

Most of my juvenilia was destroyed in the Great Shredding of the 1990s. A few pieces are preserved in the small literary magazines our high school turned out twice a year, copies of which I still own.  My mother owns a few more pieces. And while I have not yet seen it, a longtime friend recently revealed that she still owned a spiral bound notebook containing my works from 1972-1973. This announcement galvanized me for two reasons, the first being the fact that some of my old, old stuff still existed, and the second being that I had made a similar notebook, now long gone, for Warren's high school graduation present in 1972. 

The following poem amuses me, even almost 40 years later, because it was written in response to my now brother-in-law, Brian. He was a year behind me in school, but my senior year found him in many of the same literature classes, as well as on the same academic quiz team. Brian and I were always friends, despite the heartbreak his older brother had dealt me. I liked him because he was bright and funny and because he reminded me a lot of Warren.

This was written in the fall of 1973, the start of my senior year. I wore an old-fashioned locket, complete with a picture of my then boyfriend inside it. When reading, I would absentmindedly fiddle with the locket, sliding it on the necklace chain, sometimes "missing" when I reached for it. During one such "miss," I looked up to see Brian staring at me with a "what is she doing?" expression on his face.


Lines for Brian

I feel embarrassed
      (trying to find the chain
      of my necklace)
that he should see me fumbling about my neck
      like an old woman:
it could have been a lace-
      edged handkerchief
or unfastened cameo brooch
on a vast expanses of dotted swiss bosom.

I should be dressed in slender silks and
      feathers: not mind-printed into a
dowagered old age.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Lines For Carol

I was going to start my month of poetry with poems from my younger days (from the handful of poems that still exist), but Life intervened.

Last Sunday my cousin Carol died. Only two years older than me, she lived in poverty all of her adult life. Hers was not an easy life, but it was a scrappy life. In recent months, her health, long poor, failed precipitously. Carol died suddenly of cardiac arrest, brought on by years of poverty, poor health, and poor choices.

I am struggling with my cousin's death. We were not close; we were never close. All the same, we were bound by family history and family blood.  Her memorial service is later today.

In this poem, the last lines refer to the High Plain of Heaven, an afterlife in traditional Japanese Shinto belief.



Even as a little girl, she had
a sharp, simian face.
Her mother, my aunt, was Japanese
and Masako's oriental features were stamped on the faces of the three girls.

        The oldest was a cherry blossom,
        the middle one a slim iris.
        Carol, the youngest, was a chippoke saru, a little monkey.

Grandma often told me that
I would howl in protest when my aunt and uncle came to visit from faraway Baltimore
and plopped Carol down next to me to play.
"You never did like Carol," she would say, nodding.

She was right.

When I was older, my aunt and uncle and Carol moved back here
and we were all in the same town.
Our orbits only crossed sporadically,
much like the way Neptune wobbles across the path
of Uranus in its elliptical travels.
I would always shift
uncomfortably from foot to foot
if the talk went past pleasantries.

Then I left town and didn't have to think anymore about my cousin.

When I returned years later, Carol's voice had scaled up into a crone's range
and the monkey face stood out in her wizened features.
Poor health and poor choices racked her body.
The desire to live burned all the more fiercely in her eyes,
then went out just like that.

What do we say at graveside?
Where do we throw petals?
How do we share memories?
What name do we give her?
        Little Hard Life?
Chippoke Saru,  scuttle off to the High Plain of Heaven
while we stay behind to sweep up.